Senator Femi Okurounmu, elder statesman and chieftain of the Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, can rightly be described as the midwife of the ongoing National Conference. Reason: He headed the Presidential Advisory Committee raised by President Goodluck Jonathan on October 1, 2013, to draw up the template for the operations of the confab.
Despite the seeming disagreement over the report of the Committee on Devolution of Power between Northern and Southern delegates, the Yoruba elder insists the confab has achieved most of its set goals and cannot be described as a failure. Okurounmu also speaks on why the South-West is trying to free itself from the opposition status and embrace the ruling party, a development that is at variance with its original political stance.
Sir, should I congratulate you for the National conference, whose template you set, or sympathise with you over the confusion that has set into it as result of a sharp disagreement between the North and Southern delegates over derivation issues?
Well, we should say congratulations to Nigerians because things could have been worse and for the fact that the Bible says that in all things we should give thanks. It could have been worse. The conference did not collapse but was successfully concluded. Unfortunately, we could not take a decision on a very serious issue of resource control and so we had to pass the buck back to the government. That is the only unfortunate thing about the conference. This is something in which we should have been able to take a decision. But all the same, I believe that the government will apply wisdom in trying to resolve the issue.
But that takes us back to the question – why did we have to waste time and money if we knew we were going to return to sender, knotty issues of resource control?
That will not be a reasonable conclusion because as everyone realises, there were 20 committees at the conference and we successfully negotiated our way through 19 and three quarters of the committees. We resolved all issues without even having to vote in 19 committees. The committee on Devolution of Power, which handled resource control was the one that had a little setback and not that anything has failed as being speculated by those who did not even want the conference in the first place. There was no breakdown of the conference on the issue of restructuring. At least, we were able to reach a compromise on the recommendations of restructuring. I want to say that a technical committee is quite different from a national conference. A technical committee is just a committee of experts, who will look at the issues of derivation dispassionately and it will be nice if it is a committee of people, who have no vested interest. The problem is that the national conference was composed of delegates with vested interest of how much money was coming to their states. The technical committee will not be composed of representatives of states but with representatives of relevant professions, people skilled in financial matters, who can advise the government dispassionately on what to do.
What will be the difference between the function of the technical committee and that of the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission?
There is a marked difference. Anyone can be a member of the RMAFC. You don’t need to be a financial expert to be a member of the commission because the job is well cut out: how to share revenue based on worked out formula by the government.
Will the recommendation of the technical committee be acceptable to all Nigerians, whose representatives have disagreed openly at the conference?
Well, to the extent that they will be appointed by the government, it is likely that if they recommend something to the government, Nigerians should accept it. After all, a lot of the things we are doing today were accepted from military governments that were not elected by us. But today we have a government that we all elected and is serving us. So, if we accepted recommendations from the military government we should be able to accept the recommendations of a committee raised by our own government. I am optimistic about that.
But some Nigerians have said the conference has gone with the wind like the 2005 Political Reforms Conference that was aborted as a result of the suspicions that Obasanjo wanted to use it to achieve a third term in office?
This conference was not aborted, I hope you know that. So, anybody who says the conference was aborted must have been wishing it bad luck right from the beginning.
But the Yoruba, who wanted regional autonomy or nothing at the confab, must have been disappointed by the outcome, or have they been given something else?
We did not have regional autonomy in the way we would have wanted it. But we did not fail either. We wanted each of the six zones to become the federating unit so that we go back to the regional structure of government that we had before. Except that instead of having three or four units we would have six regions and each of them would be free to develop at its own pace. That was what we wanted. We did not fail 100 percent because we got a resolution that made it possible for states to merge if they so desire. Under that arrangement, if a state wishes to merge, they could do so provided they meet certain conditions. They would have to go through a referendum for any serious change to be made. Each of the Houses of Assembly must approve such actions and a simple majority from the National Assembly to sail through. Even though we have not had a regional autonomy, we can still have states agree to do so and go through the stipulated rule and regulations. States are even free to set up a zonal commission to take care of their needs.
To help emphasise, states can merge if they meet certain conditions agreed at the conference. The point is that such states can continue to operate as a federating unit but they can merge and can have their own constitution. We have approved state police and each state can have its own constitution. Some people did not like all these but the conference approved them. Talking about far-reaching decisions reached by us, perhaps, the most important of them all is the one on local government administration in Nigeria. Before now, everybody complained about the unfairness in the number of local of local governments in some states of the country. Now, the position is that local government belongs to the state and it does not matter how many local government any state wants to have. Local government administration has now been completely removed from the federal government. What it means is that if any state wants to use all its resources to create local government, it is free to do so. The revenue of Nigeria will now be shared between the Federal and state governments. This is a fundamental reform that the media should be able to highlight.
There is this fear that given the number of people trying to lead the Yoruba race, its unity and stability will continue to ebb. As one of the leading voices in Yorubaland, what can be done to preserve its cohesion?
You see time has a way of healing wounds and resolving problems and I think that gradually the problems in Yorubaland are being solved. The Yoruba were 100 percent united behind the Alliance for Democracy to the point that we rejected even Obasanjo in his own ward: no other party could make headway in Yorubaland. Our leadership headed by Pa Adesanya was highly respected; he was principled and committed to the interest of his people. Everybody respected and accepted his leadership and he was able to lead the people effectively.
We fielded some governors and they won the election in the zone. But unfortunately when Obasanjo came to power he encouraged our governors to lead rebellion against the established Yoruba leadership and of course, there were internal divisions created by the fact that Chief Bola Ige went to serve under Obasanjo. At that time, Bola Ige had some misgivings against the Yoruba leadership and that encouraged him to cooperate with Obasanjo, who wanted to drive a wedge against Yorubaland.
That gave the governors the chance to rubbish the Yoruba leadership and say that they were not their own masters. Unfortunately, when people think that they are masters, they begin to fumble because it is one thing being led by people who have no interest in any political gain apart from protecting the interest of the race or nation and then being led by a man, who is after money, power and wealth. That is what has created the problem in Yoruba land today. One of the governors now has ambition to become the leader of Yorubaland and unfortunately for him, he misunderstood the Yoruba people. He thought that money alone was enough to make him a Yoruba leader but he forgot that the Yoruba have not always looked at money as the sole criterion for picking their leaders. Awolowo was not the richest man in Yorubalan but by the time he became a leader, he was being funded by very rich Yoruba people. Abraham Adesanya did not have money-he was living in a very simple house but he had the control over Yoruba land because everybody acknowledged him as a worthy Yoruba son worthy to be followed.
Unfortunately, as soon as these former AD governors took over and they had their own leader, who wanted to become the Yoruba leader, their so-called leader did not possess the attributes that every Yoruba man would be proud of. Money can deceive a lot of people initially but after some time the people’s eye would be open for them to see where to go and who not to follow.
And that is why we are thankful to the people of Ondo and Ekiti. Ondo was the first to lead the rebellion because they took all the money to Ondo and the people rejected it.
They took all the money to Ekiti and the people rejected it, not because the governors are doing well but the character of their leader is rubbing badly on them. The leader is not leading the way the Yoruba expect to be led. That is the problem. I would say that it is an unfortunate thing for their party but a fortunate thing for the Yoruba people, who are being liberated from the grip of these political adventurers, who think they can just come and hijack
Yoruba land and its leadership. So, I think now that the Yoruba people are opening their eyes it would be easy to mobilise the Yoruba people once again by a truly selfless committed leader, whom they can identify with, morally, socially and politically.
Don’t you think that the proliferation of political parties in the South-West will lead to more political divisions in Yoruba land and change its opposition inclination for which the region has always been known since the days of Pa Awo?
There is no proliferation of parties in the area. When people have lost their way, there are many who will be looking for ways to find the right way to reclaim Yoruba solidarity. The people, who found SDP, are trying to see if that is the way, those who found LP and UPN followed.
We are looking for ways to liberate ourselves from the hijackers. Everybody in Yoruba land is looking for a way to liberate themselves once again from these pretenders, who claim to be progressives but are the opposite of anything progressive.
They say they are progressives but they admit all the corrupt people from the PDP; they bring them together to form the All Progressives Congress. What is progressive about Nyako? So, we are looking for ways to free ourselves from these people. And their leader became rich through government office, through abuse of office. Up till today, he is still busy acquiring. Is that how Awolowo led Yorubaland? We are looking for ways to free ourselves from the pretenders.
During the last election, they were ACN. Yoruba people were not voting for ACN but voted against PDP because PDP has never been popular in Yorubaland. It has never been. In Ogun State, all the people I voted for in 2011, I did not know any of them. I just knew I did not want PDP and voted ACN. That was why I voted for ACN in 2011. But now that the Yoruba people have now known that the APC is worse than PDP in corruption and impunity and lack of internal democracy, we have to vote against it.
Are you therefore saying that it is possible for the APC to lose in Osun State?
By the grace of God, many of us, who are true progressives in Yoruba land, are not wishing the APC to win in Osun State. I am not saying that they will lose but we are not praying for them to win in Osun State. If APC loses in Osun State, we shall rejoice because that means our freedom is getting more complete.
What is your relationship with former President Olusegun Obasanjo?
Obasanjo is neither my friend nor enemy.
He is not my enemy and he is not my friend. We are not friends.
Something serious must have been responsible for that?
Nothing, except that we have not been moving together. Politically we were in different parties. He was in PDP as Presidential candidate and I was in AD even though we are from the same local government and live in the same vicinity. When he was running for the presidential election on the platform of the PDP, I was the chairman of AD in Ogun state and was I leading the campaign and it was my duty to campaign against him and I did very strongly.
That means you and Obasanjo have not reconciled since then?
It takes two to reconcile. As far as I am concerned, the moment he was made president, I wrote him a congratulatory letter and those of you, who have been following me, I supported him even though I was on the AD platform. I wrote a letter to all our members to support him, and even nearly ran into trouble when I raised the alarm that people were trying to impeach him. So I supported Obasanjo 100 percent. So I have forgotten about the political differences. That is on my own side but it I don’t know what he thinking about me.
How close are you to President Jonathan and have you done anything to advise him on how best to move Nigeria forward, given the way things are going in Nigeria?
I have not done that personally but I have been able to offer some advice through the group, Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly, to which I belong.
It started about three years ago, aimed at galvanising all the political leaders in the Southern part of the country. We have done our meetings in many states so far. Every time we meet, we issue communiqué, which we always pass to Mr. President and occasionally we visit him to discuss the issues in the communiqué.